Forget Superman and Batman, DC has finally figured out how to make good superhero movies — they just had to look a bit deeper on the bench. The latest DC flick from Warner Bros., Shazam!, is an absolute blast, and turns a whole lot of the old superhero movie tropes on their heads in the best way possible.
Much like Fox’s Deadpool served as a wacky variant on the Marvel movie formula, Shazam! pokes fun at a lot of the old cliches that stymied more than a few of its peers (including more than a few of the recent DC films from Warner Bros.). Instead of costumed heroes standing in the pouring rain and growling about making one another bleed, you get a guy in a bright red costume with a glowing lightning bolt on his chest doing the floss and shooting sparks to the Rocky theme. If it wasn’t clear to this point, yeah, this is not your usual DC movie.
Based on the decades-old comic hero, Shazam! is pretty much the textbook definition of wish fulfillment, with a teenage kid inheriting magical superpowers that put him in the same stratosphere as Superman. The kid, Billy Batson, is played here by Disney Channel alum Asher Angel; with the
Take a dash of Spider-Man, a PG-13 shot of Deadpool, a drop of Stranger Things, a few cups of Big (complete with a throwaway floor piano gag) and just a dollop of Harry Potter and you kinda get a feel for what director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) is aiming for here. In Levi, you have a guy who really can channel how a kid might think and act when given the keys to a super-powered body. The story dips into a few cliches of the genre — i.e. the training montage and figuring out how his powers work — but Levi and Grazer make it fun and funny enough you more than enjoy the ride. Want to figure out if you’re bullet-proof? Bust into the middle of a robbery and ask the thieves to shoot you in the face. Want to see if you can fly? Try (and fail) to jump over a skyscraper. Sure, you’ve probably seen those jokes a dozen times in the trailers already, but they still work.
Of course, this being a superhero flick — you have to talk about the action. So how is it? The fight scenes fall back on what fans of the genre are almost certainly already familiar with, from high-flying punch outs to slugfests with dark and dreary demon creatures. It’s still entertaining enough, but not really anything that’s going to push the medium forward. The film’s big bad, Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana, is drawn a bit thinly at times. But still, Strong’s charisma can carry you pretty far on its own.
Where Shazam! really shines, though, is in the story of Billy Batson himself. He’s a foster kid who only wants to find his family, and spends most of his adolescence trying and failing to track down his missing mother. He’s just a kid grappling with emotions he’s not quite equipped for yet, and Shazam! wisely takes its time giving that arc room to breathe. At its heart, this is a story about family — a theme that makes for some surprising twists as the story goes on that we won’t spoil here. Sure, it’s not exactly new territory to tell a story about the family you find, but in the framework of a superhero story it’s not really something we’ve seen before.
Shazam! knows what makes it unique, and it leans hard into those narrative choices. This is a story fully told from a kid’s perspective, which isn’t something you get from most super-stories. They try to buy beer, and get a peek in a strip club. Y’know, stuff teenage boys would probably, actually do in this circumstance. There’s also the stakes, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof. Yes, Dr. Sivana is a threat to the world, but we really only see him causing chaos across Philly. This isn’t a story that really needed any universe-ending stakes, and keeping the story smaller really is a benefit.
It’s somewhat ironic that Warner Bros. is having its best creative luck with DC properties well outside the beaten path of A-listers like Superman or Batman that have dominated the box office for decades. It took Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam! for DC to finally start firing some creative shots back across the bow at Marvel Studios. If Shazam! is a harder glimpse at what DC has planned, I’d be happy to see this lightning strike twice.
Shazam! opens in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada on April 5th and in Australia on April 4th.
Directed by: David F. Sanberg
Written by: Henry Gayden
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
Distributed by: Warner Bros. / DC Films
Run time: 132 minutes